Eleven starts, eleven times in succession on the winner's podium: Audi continued its impressive series of podium results in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After taking three consecutive victories, Audi Sport Team Joest had to settle for third position on this occasion in the world's toughest endurance race.
"If you win the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times in succession and eight times overall, this doesn't happen by chance," declared Rupert Stadler, Chairman of the Board of Management of Audi AG. "We know how difficult it is to win Le Mans. Also Peugeot, who we congratulate on this well deserved victory, needed three attempts. We are fully committed to this race. Audi will leave no stone unturned in its quest to reclaim the Le Mans winner's trophy in 2010."
The Le Mans dbut of the innovative Audi R15 TDI demonstrated it has become even more difficult to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans first time out with a completely new sports prototype. After cancellation of the traditional test day, and Wednesday's wet free practice session, the subsequent four-hour qualifying session on Thursday and the 45-minute warm-up on Saturday morning was insufficient time to set-up the new Audi R15 TDI for the 13.629km track, which it is impossible to test on.
With considerably higher temperatures on race day, and the correspondingly different grip levels, every Audi driver complained that the cars pushed excessively during the opening stages of the race. This was corrected on Saturday evening by fitting another front bodywork section with a different aerodynamic configuration. "Our car was very good after the changes," said Le Mans record winner Tom Kristensen.
However, another phenomenon developed early on which didn't appeared during the test race at Sebring in March or throughout the subsequent test program: The intercoolers in the sidepods became so dirty they had to be cleaned repeatedly. Due to the increasing intercooler temperature, the engine power had to be reduced occasionally.
Furthermore, two of the three Audi R15 TDI were taken out of the fight for overall victory in the opening hours. The three Germans Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Marco Werner were forced to retire after 6.5 hours following an accident. Lucas Luhr lost control of his Audi R15 TDI over a bump in the extremely fast "Porsche Curves" and slammed backwards into the barriers. The stewards prohibited the heavily damaged R15 TDI from continuing for safety reasons.
Timo Bernhard (Germany) and the two Frenchmen Romain Dumas and Alexandre Prmat tumbled down the running order and were left in a hopeless position because the high-pressure injection pump, which is barely accessible, had to be changed on the V10 TDI engine in their R15 TDI.
As a result, Audi Sport Team Joest were left with the single Audi R15 TDI of Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, who kept the two leading Peugeots under pressure until Sunday afternoon before changing the right-rear suspension, costing them four laps. At the finish, last year's winners restricted themselves to defending their third position from the fourth placed Aston Martin.
"There is absolutely no doubt the race did not run as we had imagined," pronounced Head of Audi Motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. "We have once again seen why the 24 Hours of Le Mans is justifiably regarded as the world's toughest race and why absolutely everything must be correct if you want to win. This was definitely not the case with us this time. We had unexpected problems with our new R15 TDI, which we will now analyze and solve. However, especially in the second half of the race, we saw just how much potential the car has. We will build on this before making a new attempt next year."
By finishing third, Allan McNish missed out on claiming his Le Mans 24 Hour "hat-trick" and a second consecutive win. The 39-year-old Scotsman had been aiming to repeat last year's victory along with co-drivers Dindo Capello (44, Italy) and Tom Kristensen (41, Denmark). "Overall we can be relatively happy with third place," reflected Dumfries-born McNish who has now finished on the top-three podium at Le Mans six times from ten starts.
Obviously it was our aim to win and retain Audi's fantastic Le Mans record. It had to stop at some point, as all good things do. The competition from Peugeot had been fierce for the past two years, but we previously came out on top. This time they got the better of us, but everyone at Audi Sport and Team Joest, as well as the drivers, will go home, regroup, rebuild and come back next year even stronger.
McNish started from second on the 55-car grid - only the R15 TDI's second race after the same driver "combo" scored a dbut race win for the car in the Sebring 12 Hours in March. The car slipped to fourth before briefly leading in the opening hour and thereafter remained in the top-three for the duration.
The Briton drove for a total time of 8hrs 16mins on three separate occasions - setting his car's fastest lap (3min 26.632, at an average speed of 147.54mph) at 11am. Thirty minutes later the car lost 13mins with suspension and electronics issues, but it still retaining third place in front of a crowd of over 250,000.
Before the start of the race, and in keeping with past tradition, tire manufacturer Michelin honored last year's winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This year Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish were each awarded a high-quality mountain bike.
Further enjoyable duties resulting from last year's Audi victory were performed by Capello, Kristensen and McNish in the Le Mans town center, where they made the traditional handprints in the pedestrian zone. Audi also produced something unique in the process: For the first time ever there were not only three but four handprints on the plaque - Dr Wolfgang Ullrich was also given the opportunity to immortalize himself.
Year after year, tens-of-thousands of Danish fans make the pilgrimage to Le Mans, more than 30,000 of them were expected again this year. Tom Kristensen visited his compatriots in three different Danish camps. Team mates Dindo Capello and Allan McNish accompanied the Danish Audi driver, who was warmly greet in `tent town' in the Parc du Raccordement.
The Le Mans organizers ACO conjured up a special offer for the many German fans by staging an autograph session at the "German Quarter" at Arnage for every German competitor - including music from a German brass band. The four German Audi drivers Timo Bernhard, Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Marco Werner attended the autograph session on Audi's behalf.
As one of two prize winners, Romain Dumas was presented with a new award uniting two events. For the first time in 2009 the ACO and ADAC awarded a prize to a German and French personality for their sterling efforts at both the 24 Hours of Le Mans as well as the 24 Hours Nrburgring. Romain Dumas, who competes at Le Mans for Audi, won the classic in the Eifel for the third time in succession. The second prize winner is the 13-time Le Mans participant and engineer Jrgen Barth who won the long-distance race in 1977.
Audi handed over a new highlight to the automobile museum at Le Mans for its comprehensive historical collection: An Audi R10 TDI. The first diesel-powered car to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans has its own place in the Museum on the Sarthe.
Officials, volunteers and rescue workers at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year once again travel under the badge of the four rings. Audi provided 24 "Official Cars" for operational purposes - the Safety Car, Race Control, Medical Car, Fire Safety, Track and Extrication. The models ranged from the Audi TT Coup to the Audi S6 Avant, Audi RS 6, Audi Q5, Audi Q7 to the Audi R8. Furthermore, the two top models of each respective product line - the Audi R8 V10 and TT RS - were available for the race as extra Safety Cars.
Two former Audi Le Mans winners, who recently competed in the 24-hour race around the Nrburgring for Audi teams, use their motorsport expertise as television commentators this year. Frank Biela made his dbut as commentator for the German language Eurosport programs, Emanuele Pirro commentated for the actual race in his mother tongue for Eurosport Italy, and in French for Eurosport France for the historical race held on Saturday morning. Former Le Mans winner Hans-Joachim Stuck, today Motorsport Representative for the Volkswagen Group, was also busy at Le Mans as TV commentator.
Nick Mason hung around at Le Mans as an Audi UK guest. The motorsport enthusiast and drummer of rock group Pink Floyd will drive an Auto Union race car in three weeks between 3 and 5 July at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. His love of motorsport continues in the family: Holly, the rock musician's daughter, contested the historical legends race at Le Mans on Saturday. This year she will marry racing driver Marino Franchitti.
Claudia, the wife of Audi factory driver Lucas Luhr, had originally planned to travel to Le Mans. However, a sudden and special "addition to the family" complicated matters: At the request of their children, the family has recently grown through the addition of a ten-week old Labrador crossbreed. Even though he is only four years old, the couple's son Gianluca proved his reputation as family jester: The puppy was aptly named as "Rocky", the nickname of Lucas Luhr's teammate Mike Rockenfeller.
Allan McNish saw an Audi R10 TDI win immediately before starting the 24-hour race. At Silverstone in the week before Le Mans the Scot saw how junior high-school students representing Dalbeattie High School won the British Championship for radio-controlled model cars.